Tech leaders on Low-Code/No-Code, Automation, and Scale

Nigel Wright’s May 2021 Tech Leaders Webinar focused on two major trends impacting the world of IT:

Individuals representing various key industry sectors were invited to take part in a roundtable discussion sharing their thoughts and challenges related to the key themes.

Low-Code/No-Code Solutions

Low-code/no-code development platforms allow enterprise and citizen mobile app developers to create mobile or web apps. According to Gartner, “By 2024, low code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of development activity.”

Governance restricting adoption of low-code/no-code solutions

Some attendees acknowledged that they had investigated and trialled low-code/no-code solutions. Leaders agreed on the positive features offered by various low-code/no-code platforms. In particular, how they can reduce dependency on dev teams to “build everything,” thus freeing up time for more business-critical projects. The downside, however, is having to cede control to “people who aren’t naturally performing development roles.” As one attendee highlighted, “It’s a process that is fraught with risk.”

At one company, a trial of a low-code solution for categorising incoming emails created vulnerabilities that undermined governance. Because central IT wasn’t aware of the trial taking place, when making changes to a core system, issues soon emerged. Others agreed that while the idea of allowing other departments to replace underlying spreadsheets or access systems with “rigorous” bespoke tools is attractive, the outcome actually “… makes the problem of disparate systems even worse.”

Companies using low-code/no-code solutions indicated that tools were only applied to internal rather than external systems due to governance issues. One individual stated that their low-code/no-code platform is maintained by IT, rather than it being “out there” in the business. Testing was another use for low-code/no-code programs, though, leaders were sceptical around whether these tools actually test rather than simply “check” functionality. Talent shortages, however, suggested low-code/no-code would, in some instances, remain part of IT solutions moving forward.

Further drawbacks and alternatives to low-code/no-code platforms

A lack of available talent meant that, for many companies, some systems remain within Access or Excel, etc. due to a prevailing scepticism around low-code/no-code solutions.

One company represented at the webinar explained how they had recently migrated away from a low-code/no-code platform that had supported business operations for the previous five years. The attendee noted how the inadequacy of the platform to fulfil certain functions meant developers always had “to fill in the gaps.” If the company had opted for outsourcing their development to one specialising in web development, this needn't have been the case. The difficulty of achieving standardisation was another factor, as was cost: “Because you’re limited by the way the platform is priced, you attempt to change the way it was developed by implementing your own Javascript. But, by this point, your cost has almost doubled.”

In addition to relying on Access and Excel, attendees noted alternative tools such as Power Automate as being adequate for automating basic functions.

The discussion also focused on the pros and cons of RPA (Robotic process automation) as another option for creating organisational agility. It was agreed that in circumstances where archaic infrastructure and legacy systems could not be replaced, RPA is a helpful and effective alternative to building middleware, etc. While it does help “ameliorate risk”, generally, attendees saw RPA as a “stop-gap solution” until a permanent fix can be implemented.

Low-Code/no-code a ‘flash in the pan?’

Interestingly, attendees talked about the low-code/no-code trend as a case of “history repeating itself.” A few years ago, for example, NoSQL was “the best thing in the world,” according to one attendee. It was assumed that SQL would replace NoSQL and that SQL developers would become obsolete. That, of course, never transpired. Similarly, tech leaders at our event believed that low code/no-code platforms will become fashionable over the next few years – hence the 65% statistic quoted earlier – but will only ever be short-term solutions for “low-grade tasks” – e.g. sending emails, push notifications, etc.

Many attendees referred to their leadership style as being representative of a “purist” approach. This was defined as being focused on “finding the right tool for the job” rather than deferring to a “half-a-job” solution. As one individual explained, developing at pace should always be a priority. If development was happening quickly and still not keeping up with the needs of the organisation, then alternative solutions should be considered: “Until that juncture, however, I’d still be sceptical.”

Another commented: “I believe in doing what’s best for the business over the long-term – that usually involves convincing the business to take the more difficult route.”

Additionally, attendees highlighted how using automated tools always requires some form of technical expertise for implementation and monitoring purposes. Therefore, a lack of resources will remain an ongoing issue. As one attendee said: “I’d rather wait for the resource to meet the need.” But with development resources scarce in the region, companies are looking at developing talent internally, hiring apprentices and moving people from other areas of the organisation, to solve talent gaps.

Standardisation, Automation and Scale

In Part II of our roundtable event, the discussion moved on to the theme of Standardisation, Automation and Scale. These are frequently cited challenges in the technology sector and attendees were particularly keen to learn how companies have scaled up automation during the last 12 months.

Companies flock to the cloud to scale up automation

The last year has brought with it many challenges. For leaders at our event, in many ways, the main task from a technology perspective has been to scale up capabilities to meet increased demand. As one individual explained: “I’m keen to automate as many basic functions as possible so that my teams can undertake more complex tasks.”

Cloud computing services offer the best way to scale up automation. Attendees gave examples of ongoing rearchitecting projects to either migrate existing applications and architecture to the cloud or of taking a “greenfield” approach to cloud adoption, with the view to eventually leaving old infrastructure (e.g. IBM iSeries stacks) behind. While Azure was the go-to cloud scaling platform for some attendees, others spoke of their ambition to move as much as possible to “the wonderful world of AWS Lambda,” which enables users to run code without managing servers.

It was noted, however, that like low-code/no-code solutions, cloud-based services like those offered by Azure and AWS don’t represent the “ultimate panacea” for serverless code. Dev teams still have to monitor serverless infrastructure and undertake manual interventions when outages occur.

Customer reluctance and regulation stalls progress

Scaling-up in the cloud means doing a lot of “confidence raising” with customers to persuade them that business needs can still be met in the cloud. A key issue is a pervasive reluctance from customers to lose visibility and control of on-prem infrastructure. This was especially the case with older companies that are “stuck in their ways.” In highly regulated sectors, too, there is little appetite for cloud migration and attendees noted how core platforms would likely remain on-prem, while front-end applications are moved to cloud-based services. 

Those companies “building new” in the cloud accept that a hybrid model is the most practical approach moving forward. This may involve hosting some technologies in the cloud and then feeding data to on-prem servers. With SMEs and newer companies driving the cloud adoption trend, attendees expect a “natural evolution” to cloud-based services over time. To attract and retain larger and older customers, however, legacy infrastructure such as the IBM iSeries will remain a feature of IT operations for several years.

Cost will become a decisive factor

A key argument for persuading more businesses to utilise cloud computing is cost. As one individual explained: “Once you get on the cloud and have completed the work underpinning this move, then the costs are a fraction of what you pay using on-prem.”

Furthermore, attendees were quick to point out that, with on-prem services, it’s not only the cost of the hardware to take into account but also the engineers you need to maintain it. The cost of using something like AWS Serverless, on the other hand, is “almost non-existent." You also get “built-in scalability and reliability” on the Serverless platform. Seeing the big picture and avoiding one-dimensional “server versus serverless” thinking is important for decision-makers.

Interestingly, attendees highlighted the “staggeringly good” deals available now for hardware – e.g. rental models for IBM iSeries stacks – indicating how the demand for cloud-computing services is changing the competitive marketplace.

Final thoughts on leadership

Given the technical knowledge required to monitor serverless infrastructure, attendees emphasised the importance of having a “you build it, you own it” attitude when it comes to using cloud-based systems. This will ensure dev teams remain committed to ongoing product integrity. The conversation then turned to the dilemma of prioritising commercial or customer experience activities. As one tech leader suggested, this all depends on whether you instil a “product or project” ethos in the team:

“If it’s ‘product’ then you get accountability. If you adopt a revolving ‘projects’ approach, then that accountability is lost when a project ends. I always advocate for product-based dev teams because they will own everything to do with a product and ensure its functionality. Though, if there are very few iterations of a product, then maybe accountability isn’t the most important factor driving your strategy.”

As one attendee responded: “There’s never one simple answer. You often end up with a hybrid approach – hybrid seems to be a popular word these days for many things.”